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Rep.-elect Luke Letlow dies of COVID-19

Letlow is first person elected to Congress to die from the disease

Rep.-elect Luke Letlow died of COVID-19 Tuesday, days before the 117th Congress he would have joined was set to begin.
Rep.-elect Luke Letlow died of COVID-19 Tuesday, days before the 117th Congress he would have joined was set to begin. (Photo courtesy of Letlow’s campaign)

Rep.-elect Luke J. Letlow, a Louisiana Republican and former chief of staff to retiring Rep. Ralph Abraham, whom he was elected to succeed, has died of COVID-19.

“The family appreciates the numerous prayers and support over the past days but asks for privacy during this difficult and unexpected time. A statement from the family along with funeral arrangements will be announced at a later time,” Andrew Bautsch, a representative for the congressman-elect, posted on Letlow’s Facebook page.

Letlow’s death Tuesday comes just five days before the 117th Congress he was elected to be part of is set to begin. Although not officially a member, he is the first person elected to Congress to die of COVID-19. Letlow just turned 41 earlier this month.

The death was first reported by his local paper, the News-Star. The report was quickly followed by confirmation and condolences from Louisiana’s former governor, Republican Bobby Jindal, on Twitter, and current governor, Democrat John Bel Edwards, in a statement.

“COVID-19 has taken Congressman-elect Letlow from us far too soon,” Edwards said. “I am heartbroken that he will not be able to serve our people as a U.S. Representative, but I am even more devastated for his loving family. I hope all of the people of Louisiana will join Donna and me in praying for Congressman-elect Letlow’s family, especially his wife Julia and their two children, his many friends and the people of the 5th Congressional District.”

Although funeral arrangements have not yet been announced, Edwards has ordered flags to be flown at half staff on the day of Letlow’s funeral.

Jindal had some more personal words to share about Letlow, who got his start in politics after college campaigning for Jindal in the future governor’s 2004 House race. That led to a job as Jindal’s district director, and he transitioned to state government when Jindal was elected governor.

After his time with Jindal, Letlow worked out of the government affairs shop for QEP Resources, an oil and natural gas exploration company, from 2010 to 2014 before jumping back into politics, managing Ralph Abraham’s 2014 campaign. He went on to serve as Abraham’s chief of staff.

Letlow announced Dec. 18 he had tested positive for COVID-19, saying in a tweet at the time that he was at home resting. But his condition quickly worsened and he announced Dec. 21 that he was undergoing treatment at St. Francis Medical Center in Monroe, La.

Two days later, Bautsch announced the congressman-elect had been transferred to Ochsner Health Shreveport Academic Medical Center for treatment. Bautsch’s announcement included a statement from the center’s chancellor, Dr. G.E. Ghali, saying Letlow was in intensive care but in stable condition, receiving Remdesivir and steroids as part of his treatment therapy.

It’s not clear what transpired in the six days since Letlow was reported to be in stable condition. Many COVID-19 patients never recover. Letlow is among more than 330,000 Americans to have died from COVID-19.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said in a tweet that he spoke with Letlow’s wife Julia and was praying for her and their two children.

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise led the Louisiana delegation in a statement saying they were “devastated” about the news.

“Luke had such a positive spirit, and a tremendously bright future ahead of him,” the eight-member delegation said.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi also put out a statement saying the entire House mourns Letlow’s death.

“May it be a comfort to Luke’s wife Julia and their children Jeremiah and Jacqueline that so many mourn their loss and are praying for them at this sad time,” the California Democrat said.

Letlow told CQ Roll Call in a September interview that he had planned to focus his legislative agenda on agriculture, the economic driver for the 5th District, in an effort to preserve rural culture.

“I grew up in a very rural community,” he said. “ I think I’m the only candidate that drives down a dirt road to get home every night. I want my children to have that same experience.”

Letlow was born and raised in Start, where all of his grandparents knew each other as children. He attended Ouachita Christian High School in Monroe; his wife, Julia Barnhill Letlow, is also a graduate.

He took his family history seriously. Letlow has maintained a thorough blog about his rural community of Richland Parish called “Richland Roots,” archiving the history, geography and people of the land across several centuries. Nine generations of relatives have write-ups, and a color-coded chart traces his lineage back to his 32 great-great-great grandparents. Letlow researched it by going through old newspapers, archives and legal documents. 

Abraham announced in February 2020  — a few months after finishing third in the 2019 Louisiana governor’s race  — that he wouldn’t seek a fourth term in the House. A few weeks later, Letlow stepped down as his chief of staff and announced his campaign, along with Abraham’s endorsement. 

Louisiana has an election system where all candidates regardless of party run in an Election Day “primary.” On Nov. 3, no candidate garnered 50 percent of the vote, and the top two finishers — Letlow and fellow Republican Lance Harris — advanced to a Dec. 5 runoff election. Letlow prevailed in the runoff election, besting his opponent by more than a 15-percent margin.